About B.K.S Iyengar and Iyengar Yoga
People often ask what is Iyengar Yoga and who is Mr. Iyengar? Many of our students aren’t sure exactly who Mr. Iyengar is or what Iyengar Yoga stands for. They just come to do yoga!! Which is O.K. Some people in the past have even thought that the sound of “Iyengar Yoga” meant “Ingela” Yoga!! Well, I wish to share with you in this “reflection” some light, insight, and history on Iyengar Yoga and its founder, Mr. B.K.S. Iyengar.
Yogacharya, B.K.S. Iyengar was born in India 94 years ago. As a child he was very sick, and was told he wouldn’t live past the age of 20. When he was 16 he had the opportunity to go and live with his brother-in-law Krishnamacharya, a Yoga teacher and Sanskrit scholar. This was the turning point in his life. After two years living and learning Yoga from his guru and brother-in-law, his health and hope for life improved. At the age of 18 he had an opportunity to teach Yoga in Pune, near Bombay. He was living on a shoestring and exploring Yoga on his own without any teachers available. He practiced what he had learned from Krishnamacharya up to 10 hours a day, to help gain knowledge from inside his body, to be able to teach his students more effectively.
After marriage, six children, and many years of teaching, he opened up the Ramamani Memorial Iyengar Yoga Institute in 1974. The Institute was dedicated to his wife, Ramamani, after her sudden death. Since then thousands of students from around the world have come to study at the Institute with Mr. Iyengar and his daughter Geeta and son, Prashant. Currently, there are more people desiring to study with the Iyengars than they can accommodate. People now need to have studied a minimum of 8 years before applying and the waiting list is 2-3 years long!! Next August I’ll be returning for the fifth time to study with the Iyengars, and several of our Yoga Northwest teachers have been there and some are now on the waiting list to go within the next few years.
In April, Time magazine selected Mr. B.K.S. Iyengar one of the “100 Most Powerful and Influential People in the World,” together with Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, and many other “celebrities.” Mr. Iyengar was profiled in a category titled “The People Who Shape our World,” and was the only “yogi” recognized and awarded this honor. Various people wrote short essays on each of the honorees. Michael Richards, well known as Kramer from the sitcom Seinfeld and a devoted Iyengar practitioner, wrote about B.K.S. Iyengar. He titled it “Bringing East to the West” and he credits Mr. Iyengar’s influence for “mainstream western acceptance of a 3000 year old Indian tradition.” Mr. Richards continues, “The beauty of Iyengar Yoga in particular is the revelation that there is a living architecture hidden in all of us that only needs unveiling…The goal is to tie the mind to the breath and the body, not an idea. His philosophy is Eastern, but his vision is Universalist…He’s introduced to the West the East’s best path to health and well-being.”
In 1966 Mr. Iyengar published the book Light on Yoga, the most comprehensive book ever published on Yoga. Numerous translations and his teachings have circled the globe and reached millions of people. Since the late 60’s Light on Yoga has brought a new ‘light’ to the way Yoga is practiced in the world today. In earlier days, Yoga was practiced in “the dark” with the lights dimmed and eyes closed. The teachers or “gurus” often taught from a podium cross legged, dressed in a robe. Or they did the Yoga poses with their students offering little or no guidance. The emphasis was more on having a mystical experience while doing the classical poses, surrounded by burning incense and pictures of Hindu gods. Yoga at that time mostly appealed to people with very flexible bodies and far out souls. When Mr. Iyengar and his teachings entered the Yoga world, the lights were turned up, eyes opened, and teachers (Mr. Iyengar included) were wearing Nike shorts and guiding the classes actively with anatomical and practical instructions. Instead of being an “out-of-body experience,” Mr. Iyengar and his teachers took the students into an “in-the-body awareness.”
Mr. Iyengar’s innovative mind has explored how to align the body precisely in each Yoga pose in tune with gravity. With pure balance, maximum space is created in the spine, in all the joints, the inner organs, lungs, and brain. Most problems in our bodies, whether physical, mental or emotional, are due to compression, or lack of space. When there is balance, there is space for the circulation of blood, nerves, and breath to flow freely, cleansing and rejuvenating every cell in the body. Interestingly, as you align the body in tune with gravity, you simultaneously align the mind into the present moment, cultivating grace and mindfulness in each Yoga pose and in everyday living.
Mr. Iyengar has also explored how to make the Yoga poses more accessible to our western bodies and modern lifestyles. He has adapted the Yoga poses in an intelligent and systematic way to allow individual bodies to progress safely and effectively in each Yoga asana; to allow every unique body to experience and receive the powerful effects of Yoga; physically, mentally, and spiritually. Through Mr. Iyengar’s passion for excellence and deep desire to help others, he innovated the use of various Yoga props: belts, blankets, blocks, bolsters, sticky mats, and chairs, allowing individuals to experience the benefits of poses that might otherwise be unattainable.
Many classical asanas, like head balance, shoulder balance, lotus pose, and deep backbending poses, can cause serious strain on the neck, knees, and back if done carelessly or forcefully. Mr. Iyengar’s teaching guides the practitioner methodically and gradually, preparing the body step-by-step towards the classical pose with special care to the back, neck, and knees.
Iyengar Yoga has also gained respect and support from the medical community. Many physicians, chiropractors, physical therapists, and psychiatrists now refer their patients to the Iyengar method as a conscientious way to help people with physical, mental, or emotional disorders find positive guidance towards health and healing in conjunction with Western medicine.
Another trademark of Iyengar Yoga is “sequencing,” doing different poses for different needs. For example, if you feel low and depressed one day, a sequence focusing more on backbends can help open and lift your spirit. Or if you feel high-strung and stressed-out, a sequence of forward bends can be calming and soothing. Mr. Iyengar also created the “Restorative Poses,” which are classical poses that are being supported in a deeply relaxing and nourishing way using blankets and bolsters, etc. These restorative poses are very effective in helping people release stress, soothe the heart, lower the blood pressure, balance the glandular system, strengthen the immune system, calm the nervous system, quiet the mind, and bring peace inside. These poses are an important part of a balanced practice of Yoga.
Mr. Iyengar’s pursuit of excellence is also reflected in the Iyengar Yoga Certifications, which are the most challenging to attain in the world of Yoga today. In other methods of Yoga, anybody can become a certified Yoga teacher by taking a teacher training course for 3-6 weeks, with only 3-6 months previous experience in Yoga. There is often minimal or no testing required for the certification. The only requirement is that they pay lots of money!
In contrast, to earn the Iyengar Yoga Certification is much harder and is more like a “bar exam.” First you have to have practiced Iyengar Yoga for a minimum of 5 years and to have taught Iyengar Yoga for 2 years just to apply. Most people applying have studied longer, apprenticing with senior teachers for several years, taking numerous teacher trainings, weeklong seminars, and workshops.
The Iyengar Yoga “Bar Exam” Certification is a 2-3 day event. During these days, the candidates are tested on their skills and understanding in practicing and teaching the Yoga poses, in Yoga philosophy, anatomy, and therapeutic applications. Most people spend a year concentrating on preparing for these events. If you pass you earn the “Iyengar Yoga Mark,” a logo that represents excellence in teaching Yoga with depth, clarity, and understanding.
At Yoga Northwest, most of our teachers are Iyengar certified and some recently received the first step of certification. We at Yoga Northwest feel very honored to be in a direct lineage with a true visionary and one of the world’s most influential human beings, our teacher, Mr. B.K.S. Iyengar. He is now 86 years old and has been practicing Yoga for 70 years devotionally, daily standing on his head for 10-20 minutes, doing his Pranayama (Yoga breathing) and still dropping back into fancy backbends (that I can only dream of doing!). He still contributes to the classes at the Institute and presents to the world in lectures and writing his insightful and often poetic words of wisdom.
To conclude this essay, here are a few words that were recently shared by Mr. B.K.S. Iyengar:
“…Thus, Guruji (my teacher, Krishnamacharya) planted the seed of teaching in me, which has now grown into a mighty tree spreading its branches over all the five continents. . . . Faith and untiring efforts made me understand and realize that the purpose of my life was to utilize it for the good of society and the world at large.”
“…I am now inter-linked with Yoga and Yoga with me. It is now difficult to consider Yoga and myself as different entities. I do not hesitate to share my experiences with my pupils and am still experiencing new feelings and new light even though age is telling upon me. I live in my cells and in my heart. I would like to practice Yoga till my last breath as my humble services to Yoga and my only wish is to prostrate to God, surrender to God, surrendering my each breath while performing Yoga. I am sure that after me, my pupils, my grand pupils and great grand pupils will carry the message of Yoga to every nook and corner of the globe so that all may live as one human race without geographical division or division of caste, color, creed or sex.” –B.K.S. Iyengar
Thank you, Mr. Iyengar, for your gift of Yoga.
With love and gratitude,